You might stereotype a narcissist’s behavior online as simply vain or self-absorbed. Yet the image of the selfie-taking narcissist does not cut it when it comes to how a narcissist truly behaves online. People share pictures of themselves online for various reasons; special occasions, meeting a new fitness goal, or capturing a confident moment. Real narcissists aren’t the ones taking selfies – they are often the ones bullying, harassing, and stalking others in cyberspace. Here are three behaviors that narcissists online engage in and how you can spot one on the internet:
1. Policing, controlling, and shaming others.
Perhaps one of the most underhanded ways that narcissists, especially female narcissists, exercise their entitlement is by policing and shaming others. As author and bullying prevention expert Sherri Gordon notes in an article distinguishing between true narcissists and the garden-variety self-centered person on the internet:
“Teens are often labeled narcissistic because of the multitude of selfies and over-the-top posts on Instagram and Twitter. But experts indicate there is a difference between self-centered teens who post excessively on social media and a true narcissist. In fact, there is much more to narcissism than having an inflated sense of self-importance. Besides self-centeredness, narcissists also exhibit some distinct characteristics that make them prone to controlling and bullying others…Narcissists also are extremely self-righteous and judgmental of other people. As a result, when they bully others, they often believe that the victim deserves the treatment or brought it on themselves. Consequently, they never take responsibility for their choices to hurt other people.”
For a narcissist online or in real life, it’s all about micromanaging and controlling others. Policing what others post, however innocuous those posts may be, and shaming them for it is one popular way narcissists get their sadistic “fix” online. It’s not uncommon for a female narcissist, for example, to criticize, insult, judge and shame other women on what pictures they are taking or posting on social media, especially if such posts evoke their pathological envy. They will disguise this as self-righteous indignation when in reality, it is jealousy and envy at the root. Normal, empathic people do not go out of their way to harass strangers online, especially if those strangers are not doing anything to harm others. Envious and narcissistic individuals, however, will do so with fury in order to dampen another person’s enthusiasm or ruin an innocent person’s day.
Narcissists will try to police even what complete strangers are doing, and take great pride in doing so. Male narcissists, too, can shame others (especially women) in a similar fashion, as narcissism in heterosexual males has been associated with misogyny and lashing out at heterosexual women (Keiller, 2010). This will not come as shocking news to any woman who has been trolled online and been subjected to violent threats and put-downs if she dares to speak out or basically exist on any online platform.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the person posting the selfie, sharing good news, or writing an outspoken social media post you should be worried about: it’s the bully in the comments section who is degrading him or her excessively for daring to exist online. This is how you know someone has narcissistic traits: the sheer entitlement it takes to go on a stranger’s profile and attempt to dictate what they post, or worse, shame them for doing so, speaks to their lack of empathy and excessive need for control.
2. Cyberbullying and trolling.
Perhaps the least surprising behavior narcissists engage in online is cyberbullying and trolling. Narcissists online enjoy bullying others and derive a sadistic sense of pleasure in doing so. They post provocative comments, disturbing threats, and mindblowingly cruel insults. They have long histories of serial cyberbullying, much of which should warrant prison time. These are the “professional” trolls whose online identities exist purely for the purpose of taunting others, especially those who are already marginalized.
Research has shown that those who enjoy trolling also happen to have high levels of narcissism, sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, known as the “Dark Tetrad of personality” (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus, 2014). This means that the same narcissists and psychopaths you encounter in real life could very well also be doling out their abuse behind the computer screen.
An even more recent study revealed that while trolls have the cognitive empathy to assess how someone might feel about their insulting comments, they lack the affective empathy to actually care about how that other person might feel (Sest & March, 2017). The same study showed that higher levels of sadism and psychopathy predicted trolling behavior. The higher someone scored on psychopathy, the more likely they were able to recognize and provoke the suffering of their victims but remain emotionally indifferent to it.Unsurprisingly, the same conclusion about cognitive empathy versus affective empathy has been shown for narcissists in another study (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).
In short? The reason trolls and cyberbullies are able to abuse others so effectively (or at the very least persistently) is because they derive a sick sense of pleasure from harming others and do not suffer any negative emotional consequences themselves from inflicting pain. While not all trolls are created equal, those who are psychopathic and narcissistic are psychologically dangerous to those they target.
3. Harassment, stalking, and boundary-breaking love triangles.
Narcissists online don’t just “stop” at trolling. They also resort to harassment and stalking online if they don’t get the attention they require.
It’s common for a narcissist to create multiple anonymous accounts to persistently badger the people who threaten their false sense of superiority and entitlement. They will stalk people on multiple social media platforms, leave insulting and threatening comments, write public commentary misrepresenting the person, business, or brand, and try to “overtake” the sense of safety someone feels online.
Narcissists also don’t take “no” for an answer – to them, boundaries do not exist and do not need to be honored. They believe exploitation is a reasonable way to get their needs met. These are the types who will send you excessive messages online demanding a response, even if you do not know them, guilt-tripping you into believing you have to “serve” them. That’s because they feel entitled to your time and your energy, regardless of whether or not you actually owe them anything.
Domestic Violence and Cyberstalking
It’s not just complete strangers who can behave this way, either. Many victims of malignant narcissistic partners also find themselves harassed, stalked and bullied online by their former partners, especially if these victims left their abusers first.
According to a recent NPR investigation, cyberstalking has become a common part of domestic violence cases. Abusive narcissists can create numerous anonymous accounts to “troll” and stalk their former victims on their various social media platforms, post the victim’s intimate photos or personal information, hack into their accounts, stage smear campaigns online, or even create fake accounts of the victim in an attempt to ruin the victim’s reputation. There are many ways in which this form of stalking can escalate online and it can be an unsettling ordeal for victims who simply wish to escape the abuse, only to find themselves bombarded with traumatizing e-mails, messages or comments which ensnare them back into the vicious cycle.
Not only is social media a hunting ground for psychopathic individuals, technology can be a way for abusive partners to actually locate their victims. Abusers are known to track their victims using GPS on devices, eavesdrop on the victim through the use of remote tools via hidden mobile apps, and even install spyware to keep track of their victims’ online activities.
Love triangles are also a popular way narcissists get their fix online and trespass boundaries with their primary partners.
Narcissists enjoy pitting people against one another and that includes using social media to provoke jealousy in their partners; they may do so by flirting with others online, “liking” and following sexually explicit accounts, or even starting secret affairs with strangers. They may purposely provoke you by sharing provocative posts about their new lover. In line with Robert Greene’s advice in The Art of Seduction, they “create an aura of desirability—of being wanted and courted by many,” so that they can build a reputation of being someone who is a “prize.” They feel entitled to having competitors vie for their attention and curate their online presence to make themselves seem quite desirable. If you notice a narcissist frequently flirting with or engaging with dubious material online even while they have a significant other, you may just be spotting a major red flag of their character.
As Dr. George Simon writes, “Manipulative narcissists are covert-aggressors. They use various, subtle tactics to charm, disarm, and otherwise take advantage. They play on your emotions. Moreover, many find the game of getting the better of you amusing and satisfying. In short, they enjoy “toying” with you. Manipulative narcissists lack empathy. They don’t care how you feel or how you’re impacted by their behavior. All they care about is having their way with you. It feeds their already inflated ego to do so. To them, successfully manipulating you attests to their superiority.”
The Big Picture
If you are dealing with a narcissist online, you will see these behaviors quite clearly. Next time, don’t be fooled about who might be narcissistic or assume that the person posting pictures of themselves is more narcissistic than the person bullying them for doing so. It is the narcissist’s toxic behavior towards others, online or in real life, especially innocent parties, which speaks volumes about who they are.
Buckels, E., Trapnell, P., & Paulhus, D. (2014). Trolls Just Want to Have Fun. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e520722015-006
Gordon S. (2019, October 17). Recognizing the connection between narcissism and bullying. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/recognizing-connection-narcissism-bullying-460525
Greene, R. (2004). The art of seduction. Gardners Books.
Keiller, S.W. (2010). Male narcissism and attitudes toward heterosexual women and men, lesbian women and gay men: hostility toward heterosexual women most of all. Sex Roles. DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9837-8
Sest, N., & March, E. (2017). Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 69-72. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.038
Simon G. (2018, June 29). Manipulative narcissists feel entitled. Retrieved October 23, 2019, from https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/manipulative-narcissists-feel-entitled/
Shahani, A. (2014, September 15). Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims. Retrieved August 19, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/09/15/346149979/smartphones-are-used-to-stalk-control-domestic-abuse-victims
Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7), 794-799. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.01.008
Featured image by Olena Yakobchuk, licensed by Shutterstock.